Life with Barney

After observing more than five years of solid growth in South Florida theater, it has become clear to me that certain venues, mostly by virtue of the skills of their artistic directors, produce dependably excellent work, both in the choice of scripts and actors. The bad news in this is that these companies are few in number; the good news is that we have them at all.

The majority of local acting groups, unfortunately, continue to flounder. They often protest that they must choose between staging tired old chestnuts, filling the seats with folks who might not be around in ten years, or trying new works and risking thin audiences. But my observations lead me to disagree. The issue is not revivals versus new works; the issue is the artistic director's creative inspiration in selecting material that will succeed for one simple reason: because it delivers outstanding entertainment.

In the past, I've mentioned Michael Hall of the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton as one of those wise, gifted directors who makes wonderful choices, and although I did not care much for his latest offering A A.R. Gurney's tedious 1993 work, Later Life A everyone is entitled to a mistake now and again. Hall doesn't make many. Neither does Rafael de Acha of New Theatre in Coral Gables. After eight seasons, I feel I can rely on de Acha's taste, judgment, and skills. During the course of this theater season alone, he has presented several outstanding productions, including Mountain and To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, each a relatively new work that justifiably filled the house.

Now de Acha gives us a gift of Gurney at his peak, with a highly enjoyable production of The Middle Ages. In fact, I can't remember when I've had a more thoroughly uplifting and pleasant night at the theater. When he's good, A.R. Gurney is a master, and in this 1977 piece he deftly blends serious drama, high comedy, and wonderful characterizations to tell an enchanting tale. Though there are a few flaws with New Theatre's rendition, there's so much to recommend it I must do just that. Go see The Middle Ages and you will not regret the decision.

Gurney traces the lives of four characters over a period of time between 1945 and 1979. Charles is a born blue blood whose grandfather founded a very posh and exclusive club in Philadelphia. The club serves as the center of Charles's life and the center of the play, which is set in the inner sanctum of the place, the trophy room. He may be rich, prejudiced, snobbish, and rigid, but Charles manages to retain a warm heart. He truly loves his two sons, Billy and Barney, and cherishes the memory of his dead wife. Billy, who we never see, poses no problem; he's a chip off the old block, destined for success and eventual presidency of the club. Barney, the central character of Gurney's play, is another matter. Wild and eccentric, he grows from being a rowdy teenager to a salacious pornographer, attempting at every turn to disavow his upper-crust roots and shame his father, whom he nevertheless idolizes.

Barney goes to Berkeley, Barney brings black people to swim naked in the club's pool, Barney is bisexual, and worst of all, Barney covets Ellie, a willowy girl who has decided to marry Billy even though she lusts for the wilder brother. Ellie's mother, Myra, has left her Jewish husband in Harrisburg, divorcing him first and then dragging herself and her daughter into this all-WASP club in order to gain upward social mobility. All her wishes are fulfilled when Ellie marries Billy and she ends up snagging old Charles himself.

The play opens in 1979 at Charles's funeral and moves backward in time to reconstruct the lives of Charles, Barney, Myra, and Ellie as they clash, confront, confound, and constantly intrude on each other's lives. As much as Barney wants to trash the world of the club, and as much as the others want to embrace it, all four are caught somewhere in between, tied together through invisible yet invincible bonds. For a play that begins with a family in mourning and explores the life of a dysfunctional son, the story has a happy and plausible ending. What a treat.

As Ellie, April Daras is sensational. She moves with an almost divine grace, and manages to build a complex character out of a frustrated suburban housewife. Bill Yule turns in an equally impressive performance as Charles, keeping that stiff upper lip while allowing a hint of passion and playfulness to sneak out. Sally Levin as mother Myra mugs a bit too much, and sometimes appears to be doing a Lucille Ball impersonation, but the good humor and light touch she brings to the role are endearing nonetheless.

The only serious problem with this cast is Carlos Orizondo in the pivotal and difficult part of Barney. The character must be bold and brash but also real, and Orizondo apparently doesn't have enough experience to tackle such a tough assignment. In the first part, he overacts, and in the second he seems unduly somber. Either way, he's constantly and conspicuously "acting," never at ease enough to evoke an authentic reality. To be fair to Orizondo, Gurney wrote a very tricky part in creating Barney, and only a remarkably talented performer could bring him to life convincingly.

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